Trying to keep one of the most sought after managerial talents in European football has been an ongoing concern for Borussia Dortmund – but perhaps now deciding whether to keep him will become a bigger head scratcher for the hipsters’ favourites.
No matter how many times you look at the Bundesliga table, you can’t help raising your eyebrows. Dortmund, runners up in the last two seasons and champions in the two before, sit just above the relegation zone (even going bottom for a time on Saturday) – almost as many points behind champions Bayern Munich after a 11 games as they were when the curtain fell on season 2013/14. Jurgen Klopp’s charges have been a domestic shambles.
That poor form hasn’t been carried into Europe, however, where the Germans look their old selves, strolling to qualification for the last 16. Dortmund are a veritable curate’s egg.
But why? Several explanations – the loss of Robert Lewandowski, injuries to key players, integration of new personnel, World Cup hangovers, simple individual mistakes etc – have been advanced.
Some even feel that asset stripping by Bayern Munich, who successfully wooed Mario Gotze and Lewandowski and now seem fixed on Marco Reus, has been, indeed is, unsettling the club.
All these factors are probably playing a part – although the Bayern angle is a little overplayed. Those who take the idea seriously draw comparisons with how Munich appeared to nullify the threat of Bayer Leverkusen back in 2002 by buying key players Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto, before taking their defensive rock Lucio two years later. But the idea of Dortmund as victim is a hard sell.
Klopp has done brilliantly to create teams from previously unheralded talent and has been powerless to stop some of them leaving, but he hasn’t been shy of spending the club’s new found riches in response and nor has he baulked taking players from lesser German clubs as he sees fit. The big fish will always prey on little fish – it’s an immutable law of the game.
Ultimately, however, whatever the reasons, BVB should not be flirting with relegation.
Interestingly, in all the efforts at explanation, Klopp seems to avoid direct fire. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, given what he has done for the club since taking the reins in 2008. But no matter how much capital a manager has in the loyalty bank, football remains a results game and it is they who most often carry the can.
After all, it’s a lot easier to axe a manager than turn over a squad. And Dortmund’s apparent inability to perform with intensity for a full 90 minutes – conceding goals consistently in the last half hour of matches – has to raise questions about Klopp’s role.
Are the players not fit enough? Have they dropped their standards and legendary work rate– even unconsciously – from previous seasons? Are they no longer buying into the manager’s methods? Is he failing to motivate them? Is his approach responsible for mental and physical burnout? Has he refreshed the squad with players capable of carrying out his game plan as others struggle to cope?
The motivational question is an interesting one. Striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang told BBC World:
I think we are going to have to find extra motivation in the league. When you are playing in the Champions League, there is no need to have extra motivation because the games are so special.
It’s a revealing statement – and one that should worry the manager.
The league, as Bill Shankly was fond of saying, is your bread and butter. All other problems aside, if Klopp’s playing staff believe they can pick and choose when they turn up, then he is in trouble.
Tackling that issue, reengaging his players and inspiring them to recapture the intensity and commitment that characterised their rise, will be essential if he is to pull the club out of such a worrying slide.
Fail, and the club hierarchy may have to consider the unthinkable. After all, players no longer taking instruction is a pretty serious managerial sin.
But would Dortmund really go for the nuclear option or will they hold their nerve? Doubtless there’ll be plenty of clubs hoping it’ll be the former.